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Category Archives: Religion

Refugee Crisis’ Religious Ban: Deplorable Diplomacy…?

"Backstreet Djeli"

“Backstreet Djeli”

by William “Duke” Smither

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  U. S. Constitution – 1st Amendment (Adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the “Bill of Rights”)

 

“Enough Said…!”    But, as a Viet Nam Era and Cuban Missile Crisis veteran (who once assisted rescuing Cuban refugees while we were at sea) when this nation was, perhaps, on the brink of yet another World War, I proudly served with some exemplary Muslim-American Sailors and Marines, while operating in the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, as well as various North American Treaty Organization (NATO) task force units in the Atlantic. It’s offensive to see the broad brushes of suspicion now being painted on the canvas of their proven patriotism, no matter how complex the refugee/ immigration policy constraints happen to be.  

In fact, Muslim-Americans have been serving in, or along side of, dangerous U. S. military operations all over the world, since volunteering to serve under General George Washington –Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American War for Independence (1775–1783)– the 1st president of the United States and one of the “Founding Fathers” of this nation. And, I’m reminded of these “NON-Alternative Facts” every time I visit the various military cemeteries where family members and friends are honorably interred.

The nation’s once-prevalent examples of intelligent statesmanship now seems a tad lacking in Washington politics; however, I’m confident it can still be found among the significant number of military-veteran, congressional politicians still serving there. Please, for the sake of this nation, scrap the deplorable diplomacy and knee-jerk politic, as well as any considerations suggested within recent scuttlebutt, of walking back sanctions on ‘FSB’, the Russian ‘spy agency’!

first_amendment_inscription1

 

WHAT MANNER OF MAN IS THIS…?

Backstreet Djeli 5By William “Duke” Smither

As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.(From the Crucifixion of Jesus, Luke 23:26-NIV)

 

Buried Footnotes

The Holy Week and Easter festivities are on the horizon, once again. But, my thoughts were more about an increasingly troubled Middle East, where I was stationed many years ago. While there, I had many questions within my thinking about the Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible, as well as the suppressed history of three African Popes and the hushed presence of black people in the Bible. And, the lingering racism in the world offered no consolation.

And, these nagging notions continue, today, within the celebratory rituals associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ– especially his violent execution on Calvary.  Just what kind of man was this “Jesus,” I thought, and who were these unheralded Africans in the papacy– and, the Bible?

Considering the little known ancient role of black people in the Bible, it’s always been a point of interest for me that an African, Simon of Cyrene from Ancient Libya, “The Land of the Blacks,” helped Jesus carry His cross to the Crucifixion.  While it is likely that those who authored the Bible did not possess the notion of racism that we see today, I still thought about what manner of man, whatever the color of his skin, this Jesus must have been in suffering such nauseating torture, for the oft stated “sins of humanity.”

As for the African Popes- Pope St. Victor, Pope St. Miltiades and Pope St. Gelasius– the National Black Catholic Congress and various historians provide significant documentation concerning their reigns, as well as Simon of Cyrene. That’s a chapter in world history all to itself. Yet, like other “missing pages” of black history, and all of the twisted reasons surrounding some perceived need to suppress them, the true history of the world becomes further murky and mysterious, at best.

But, I felt that the blatant horror of the Crucifixion, though also suppressed, might give some additional insight into the mission and passion of Jesus, the Christ, as I struggled to understand why he remained so faithful and loved so many with a love so strong- stronger than death itself– and, perhaps, a love that only God can understand.

According to Matthew 27:27-31 (KJV, my African Heritage Study Bible), Jesus’ physical tribulations began at the reluctant orders of Pontius Pilate, following the trial that also released Barabbas, when the Roman soldiers escorted him into a common hall full of other soldiers, flogged him with a whip of leather thongs and bits of metal, stripped the clothes from Jesus, replacing them with a scarlet robe. They platted a crown of thorns, placed it on his head and mockingly bowed before him, proclaiming, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Afterwards, they spat on him, replaced his robe with some garments, blindfolded him and beat him about the face, before leading him to be crucified on the hills of Golgotha (a.k.a., Calvary), “The Place of the Skulls,” outside of the walls of Jerusalem, perhaps a half-mile or so. At some point, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, a bystander visiting Jerusalem, was ordered to bear the cross of Jesus. He shouldered this burden to the place where Jesus was to be crucified.

On Golgotha, in preparing Jesus for the execution, the soldiers gave him vinegar, mingled with gall (bile; bitter animal secretions, etc.) to drink, although he rejected it after tasting it (some references say it was “myrrh” mixed with wine, a spice from the thorny “Commiphora” tree).

And, the horror began anew.

Painful Demise

Over the years, various doctors and historians have tried to reconstruct certain medical aspects from the physical trauma experienced by Jesus, during this slow form of an execution. It was a process that archives say the Persians cooked-up hundreds of years before Jesus was born. They say it was “the most painful death invented by man…to be used for the most vicious of criminals.” But, records show it was a practice “perfected” by the Romans.

In preparing people for execution, according to research, Romans often used wooden crosses, made of an upright pole “fixed in the ground with a removable crossbar,” of nearly 100 pounds. Typically, the victims were stripped naked with their clothing divided among the guards, as they did when gambling for Jesus’ garments.

In “The Agony of Love” (Dr. Mark Eastman, “Personal Update News Journal,” April 1998) the details of Jesus’ likely physical suffering, from a medical perspective, was published from compilations and assumptions stemming from historical archives and the “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John, the “Canonical Gospel.” It’s a worthy hypothesis, in my opinion, which looks at the physical suffering of Jesus, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before the Crucifixion. But, when it began to describe the probable physiological and/or biological stress that Jesus likely incurred while being tortured, like rainwaters rushing from cascading waterfalls, I began to get a fresh sense of what kind of man Jesus was.

From my upbringing within the black church, coupled with an association with Black Liberation Theology, I was familiar with several of the 40 or so “miracles” performed by Jesus, such as “calming the stormy sea,” “changing water into wine” and “walking on water,” etc. But, the way I saw it, enduring the agony of such sadistic and barbaric punishment- because he preached love and forgiveness- was something this “Man from Galilee,” of all people, was just not supposed to be experiencing. After all, if he could bring the decaying corpse of Lazarus back to living, breathing, eye-open consciousness, death was something he could easily avoid.  At least, that’s how I thought as a child, growing up in the home of my Baptist minister dad and summers spent on the farm of my Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother and former moonshine-running, tobacco-chewing step-granddad, turned respected farmer. But, at this late point in life, now a granddad myself; the physical trauma of Jesus, from his unusually cruel treatment while on the cross, took on a new meaning.

Sadistic Designs

According to Dr. Eastman’s “The Agony of Love,” “The resulting position on the cross sets up a horrific sequence of events which results in a slow, painful death.  Having been pinned to the cross, the victim now has an impossible position to maintain.”

Other studies or medical assumptions point out that the sadistic flogging before death served to weaken the condemned victim and produce a sudden lowering of blood pressure, likened to suddenly standing up, as well as bring about an emergency condition where severe blood loss would cause acute shock, making the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body.  As with Jesus, when such victims were thrown to the ground, on their backs, when preparing for their hands to be nailed to the cross, the flesh already ripped from his bones by flogging would be ripped open further and become contaminated with dirt and other filth. It was probable that every time he breathed, the painful wounds would rub against the rough, sometimes splintered wood and blood would ooze throughout the agonizing punishment. Intense suffering was the result, by design.

Then, with the arms of Jesus stretched out, and the wrists nailed to the cross with 9” spikes, the likelihood of Jesus hanging there until death increased.  Medical assumptions revealed that wrist bones and ligaments could support the full weight of a hanging body, but not the palms. Thus, iron spikes strategically placed between the radius and the carpals would crush certain nerves and completely sever others, producing “excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms,” as well as paralysis in certain parts of the hand and impalement of various ligaments, resulting in a fixed, claw-like clench. Well-placed spikes could minimize bleeding without breaking any bones, according to some sources.

The positioning of the feet was considered critical to successful crucifixions, with the knees flexed around 45 degrees and the feet bent downward another 45 degrees until they became parallel to the upright pole. Another 9” spike was strategically hammered through the feet (through metatarsal spaces and plantar nerves), severing non-major arteries, but without enough bleeding to cause death, just more searing pain and suffering.

Then, there were the inflammations, swellings and other changes associated with the painful trauma that made respiration, especially exhalation, extremely difficult, according to research assumptions. The body weight pulling down on Jesus’ outstretched arms and shoulders would probably cause the rib muscles, which help move the chest wall, to be placed in a permanent state of inhalation where breathing becomes shallow, at best. Muscle cramps and fatigue would have stifled breathing even further.

Spiritual Expression

When Jesus spoke his “Seven Last Words” on the cross, according to medical assumptions, he must have spoken in brief, clipped utterances which were painful to speak and difficult to hear, since speech occurs during exhalation.  After being on the cross an estimated 6 hours, Jesus died. The exact cause of his death remains debatable, but of the various possible causes, the fact that he cried out in a loud voice just before he died, is viewed as possibly stemming from some internal “catastrophic event,” like cardiac rupture. It seems that he was pierced in his side by a Roman infantry spear, after he had died. This wound was observed to cause the flow of blood and water which further raised questions, from a medical perspective, whether or not the water was urine from the bladder and/or which side the wound was actually inflicted, perforating the lungs, bladder or heart, etc.

Frankly, what keeps looming in my mind is the vicious taunting by soldiers and civilians which Jesus had to endure while hanging awkwardly on the cross. How on earth, I asked myself, could a person endure so much pain and misery, coupled with the associated teasing and jeering, by the people whose very salvation he was dying for?

Then, it dawned on me. He was not of this earth:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16) And, I began to appreciate even more the manner of this “Man from Galilee,” as well as the ancient role of blacks in the bible, heralded and unheralded.

For me, it was clear.  Jesus was not just the flesh-and-blood personification of God, but the manifestation of God’s word… God’s spirit- the Holy Spirit. What else could tame the winds, calm the seas and endure the agony of one hellish execution?

(Partial Reprint, from “WHAT MANNER OF MAN… Can Tame the Winds, Calm the Seas and Endure the Agony of One Hellish Execution?” Backstreet’s Blog 2013 – Backstreet Djeli – w.d.s.)

 

WHAT MANNER OF MAN… Can Tame the Winds, Calm the Seas and Endure the Agony of One Hellish Execution?

Backstreet Djeli 5As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (From the Crucifixion of Jesus, Luke 23:26-NIV)

Buried Footnotes

In the wake of the recent selection of the 266th head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, within the context of the suppressed history of three African Popes, I also thought about its timing within the context of the approaching Holy Week and Easter festivities- especially the celebratory landscaping associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, following his violent execution on Calvary. Considering the little known ancient role of black people in the Bible, it’s always been a point of interest for me that an African, Simon of Cyrene from Ancient Libya, “The Land of the Blacks,” helped Jesus carry His cross to the Crucifixion.  While it is likely that those who authored the Bible did not possess the notion of racism that we see today, I still thought about what manner of man, whatever the color of his skin, this Jesus must have been in suffering such nauseating torture, for the oft stated “sins of humanity.”

As for the African Popes- Pope St. Victor, Pope St. Miltiades and Pope St. Gelasius– the National Black Catholic Congress and various historians provide significant documentation concerning their reigns, as well as Simon of Cyrene. That’s a chapter in world history all to itself. Yet, like other “missing pages” of black history, and all of the twisted reasons surrounding some perceived need to suppress them, the true history of the world becomes further murky and mysterious, at best.

But, I felt that the blatant horror of the Crucifixion, though also suppressed, might give some additional insight into the mission and passion of Jesus, the Christ, as I struggled to understand why he remained so faithful and loved so many with a love so strong- stronger than death itself- and, perhaps, a love that only God can understand.

According to Matthew 27:27-31 (KJV, my African Heritage Study Bible), Jesus’ physical tribulations began at the reluctant orders of Pontius Pilate, following the trial that also released Barabbas, when the Roman soldiers escorted him into a common hall full of other soldiers, flogged him with a whip of leather thongs and bits of metal, stripped the clothes from Jesus, replacing them with a scarlet robe. They platted a crown of thorns, placed it on his head and mockingly bowed before him, proclaiming, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Afterwards, they spat on him, replaced his robe with some garments, blindfolded him and beat him about the face, before leading him to be crucified on the hills of Golgotha (a.k.a., Calvary), “The Place of the Skulls,” outside of the walls of Jerusalem, perhaps a half-mile or so. At some point, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, a bystander visiting Jerusalem, was ordered to bear the cross of Jesus. He shouldered this burden to the place where Jesus was to be crucified.

On Golgotha, in preparing Jesus for the execution, the soldiers gave him vinegar, mingled with gall (bile; bitter animal secretions, etc.) to drink, although he rejected it after tasting it (some references say it was “myrrh” mixed with wine, a spice from the thorny “Commiphora” tree).

And, the horror began anew.

Painful Demise

Over the years, various doctors and historians have tried to reconstruct certain medical aspects from the physical trauma experienced by Jesus, during this slow form of an execution. It was a process that archives say the Persians cooked-up hundreds of years before Jesus was born. They say it was “the most painful death invented by man…to be used for the most vicious of criminals.” But, records show it was a practice “perfected” by the Romans.

In preparing people for execution, according to research, Romans often used wooden crosses, made of an upright pole “fixed in the ground with a removable crossbar,” of nearly 100 pounds. Typically, the victims were stripped naked with their clothing divided among the guards, as they did when gambling for Jesus’ garments.

In “The Agony of Love” (Dr. Mark Eastman, “Personal Update News Journal,” April 1998) the details of Jesus’ likely physical suffering, from a medical perspective, was published from compilations and assumptions stemming from historical archives and the “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John, the “Canonical Gospel.” It’s a worthy hypothesis, in my opinion, which looks at the physical suffering of Jesus, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before the Crucifixion. But, when it began to describe the probable physiological and/or biological stress that Jesus likely incurred while being tortured, like rainwaters rushing from cascading waterfalls, I began to get a fresh sense of what kind of man Jesus was.

From my upbringing within the black church, coupled with an association with Black Liberation Theology, I was familiar with several of the 40 or so “miracles” performed by Jesus, such as “calming the stormy sea,” “changing water into wine” and “walking on water,” etc. But, the way I saw it, enduring the agony of such sadistic and barbaric punishment- because he preached love and forgiveness- was something this “Man from Galilee,” of all people, was just not supposed to be experiencing. After all, if he could bring the decaying corpse of Lazarus back to living, breathing, eye-open consciousness, death was something he could easily avoid.  At least, that’s how I thought as a child, growing up in the home of my Baptist minister dad and summers spent on the farm of my Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother and former moonshine-running, tobacco-chewing step-granddad, turned respected farmer. But, at this late point in life, now a granddad myself; the physical trauma of Jesus, from his unusually cruel treatment while on the cross, took on a new meaning.

Sadistic Designs

According to Dr. Eastman’s “The Agony of Love,” “The resulting position on the cross sets up a horrific sequence of events which results in a slow, painful death.  Having been pinned to the cross, the victim now has an impossible position to maintain.”

Other studies or medical assumptions point out that the sadistic flogging before death served to weaken the condemned victim and produce a sudden lowering of blood pressure, likened to suddenly standing up, as well as bring about an emergency condition where severe blood loss would cause acute shock, making the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body.  As with Jesus, when such victims were thrown to the ground, on their backs, when preparing for their hands to be nailed to the cross, the flesh already ripped from his bones by flogging would be ripped open further and become contaminated with dirt and other filth. It was probable that every time he breathed, the painful wounds would rub against the rough, sometimes splintered wood and blood would ooze throughout the agonizing punishment. Intense suffering was the result, by design.

Then, with the arms of Jesus stretched out, and the wrists nailed to the cross with 9” spikes, the likelihood of Jesus hanging there until death increased.  Medical assumptions revealed that wrist bones and ligaments could support the full weight of a hanging body, but not the palms. Thus, iron spikes strategically placed between the radius and the carpals would crush certain nerves and completely sever others, producing “excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms,” as well as paralysis in certain parts of the hand and impalement of various ligaments, resulting in a fixed, claw-like clench. Well-placed spikes could minimize bleeding without breaking any bones, according to some sources.

The positioning of the feet was considered critical to successful crucifixions, with the knees flexed around 45 degrees and the feet bent downward another 45 degrees until they became parallel to the upright pole. Another 9” spike was strategically hammered through the feet (through metatarsal spaces and plantar nerves), severing non-major arteries, but without enough bleeding to cause death, just more searing pain and suffering.

Then, there were the inflammations, swellings and other changes associated with the painful trauma that made respiration, especially exhalation, extremely difficult, according to research assumptions. The body weight pulling down on Jesus’ outstretched arms and shoulders would probably cause the rib muscles, which help move the chest wall, to be placed in a permanent state of inhalation where breathing becomes shallow, at best. Muscle cramps and fatigue would have stifled breathing even further.

Spiritual Expression

When Jesus spoke his “Seven Last Words” on the cross, according to medical assumptions, he must have spoken in brief, clipped utterances which were painful to speak and difficult to hear, since speech occurs during exhalation.  After being on the cross an estimated 6 hours, Jesus died. The exact cause of his death remains debatable, but of the various possible causes, the fact that he cried out in a loud voice just before he died, is viewed as possibly stemming from some internal “catastrophic event,” like cardiac rupture. It seems that he was pierced in his side by a Roman infantry spear, after he had died. This wound was observed to cause the flow of blood and water which further raised questions, from a medical perspective, whether or not the water was urine from the bladder and/or which side the wound was actually inflicted, perforating the lungs, bladder or heart, etc.  

Frankly, what keeps looming in my mind is the vicious taunting by soldiers and civilians which Jesus had to endure while hanging awkwardly on the cross. How on earth, I asked myself, could a person endure so much pain and misery, coupled with the associated teasing and jeering, by the people whose very salvation he was dying for? 

Then, it dawned on me. He was not of this earth:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16) And, I began to appreciate even more the manner of this “Man from Galilee,” as well as the ancient role of blacks in the bible, heralded and unheralded.

For me, it was clear.  Jesus was, not the flesh-and-blood personification of God, but the manifestation of God’s word… God’s spirit- the Holy Spirit. What else could tame the winds, calm the seas and endure the agony of one hellish execution?

Backstreet Djeli  w.d.s.

 

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SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER… OR, SUNDAY MORNING SEGREGATION?

Sweet Hour of Prayer, sweet hour of prayer,

That calls me from a world of care,

And bids me at my Father’s throne

Make all my wants and wishes known.

In seasons of distress and grief,

My soul has often found relief

And oft escaped the tempter’s snare

By thy return, sweet hour of prayer… (W. W. Walford, 1772 – 1850) 

Yet…. 

“We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic…” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 speech at Western Michigan Univ.)

From growing up in black Christian households, in the South, anchored by a Baptist preacher dad and a Pentecostal evangelist grandmother, as curtains closed on court-sanctioned segregation with the dawn of school desegregation, I learned early on to question the hypocritical silliness I saw within certain mixed interpretations of the bible- especially as they applied to African-Americans.  Simple household osmosis taught me that something was radically wrong with the racial separation in churches, especially during religious holiday celebrations in America.

Yet, like most people in the United States, according to studies like those of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, showing 8% of U.S. congregations are quantifiably “multi-racial” (no more than 80% of any one racial group), I still attend a mostly segregated church.  And, I did so again during this past Easter Sunday’s celebration of a Risen Savior, as well as most other Sunday worship services, since high school, military service, college, raising a family, three careers and, now, even in retirement.

Why?  Well, apparently, that’s a question yet to be answered by some of the most educated theologians, ardent preachers and optimistic philosophers.  Shucks, I don’t imagine that Socrates, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke or other great philosophers would have the answer, either.  On the other hand, I’ve felt that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass had a clue. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, instinctively. And, you can bet your bottom dollar that Dr. Cornel West can expound on the matter.  But, getting the world to appreciate their vision is an entirely different matter.   

Just listen to Douglass, a philosopher who happened to be an ex-slave and abolitionist, from his musings within the Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass:  

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.” 

Now, other than a few speculations of my own, I’m certainly no philosopher.  But, I think the points of view held by Mr. Douglass are still worthy of exploration, today- at least as a starting point. Oh, I realize they won’t fit within the mainstream’s scope of critical classroom thinking; but, in my opinion, this is exactly where the fallacies in America’s classroom strategies begin.  It starts within the failure to examine the ugly side of our nation’s history, systematically excluded from our selective classroom history books.  This includes routinely avoiding or suppressing the everyday-living realities associated with the various racial, ethnic and religious subcultures in America, significantly outside the realm of Eurocentric perspectives.

It’s no secret that America’s black and white citizenry have always held oceans of differences in perception, on most issues involving race or racism- at least, to those authentic enough to admit it.  We’re darn near polar opposites on everything, including certain biblical interpretations, especially as they applied to the “justification” of the ruthless brand of slavery in the United States.

Rarely will the perceptions of whites meld with blacks, as with one white activist, Tim Wise, essayist and author of “White Like Me:  Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” (Soft Skull Press; Berkely, CA, 2008, 2011). His candid take on race relations in America are rather rattling, in my opinion.  But, over the years, I’ve known other intellectually honest whites with similar attitudes. In “Whites Like Me…,” Wise reminded other whites that “By remaining oblivious to our racialization we remain oblivious to the injustice that stems from it, and we remain paralyzed when it comes to responding to it in a constructive manner.”  I’ve also known many whites with attitudes on the far side of the spectrum, completely opposite, from those with the candor and insights of Mr. Wise. 

What does this have to do with why we segregate ourselves, the way we do, on Sunday mornings in America?  Based on my experiences, the reasons are not just skin deep.  They stem from distinct cultural differences and/or cultural comfort, or discomfort, as much as they do from racial differences, perceptually positive reasons, as well as perceptually negative ones.  Within the multicultural dynamics of this society, they also tend to smother those realities outside or on the fringes of the dominant Eurocentric paradigm.

As a result, when it comes to social problem-solving activities, even among the brightest minds the nation can muster, the reasoning or arguments which are advanced often become logically invalid, at best. At minimum, the failure to factor in the quantifiable breadth of multicultural experience in America, sort of like reversing the probability theorem of the Law of Large Numbers (i.e., more averages of results from larger number of trials lends to more precise results, etc. – or something like that…), leads to more distortions and misunderstandings of the human experience- in my opinion, of course.

Simply put, it seems to me that if you really want to discourage true discourse on the matter of race and religion in America, you only have to label someone as racist for even mentioning race or racism and religion in the same breath, as many conversationalist already seem so quick to do in this society.  Yet, true discourse often follows after various exercises in conflict resolution stemming from differences, perceived or real, in belief systems, relationship issues, geographic divides, interpretations and a wide range of disputes arising out of the opposing interest of various parties or groups. 

Even in the smoldering ashes of what I think is the greatest failure in communications– war or armed conflict—some type of discourse and strategic resolution activity often takes place. This is necessary for the parties in conflict to synergize their efforts or synthesize their differences and move on toward better horizons.  But, race or racism and religion, especially in America, just doesn’t seem to fit comfortably on the scale of reason or reasonability, in my humble opinion, of course.

I’m not sure if anyone has the answer for why race still seems to be the #1 problem in America. Judging from the many decades that we’ve been dealing with it, coupled with the incomprehensible strategies that our nation’s leadership- religious and political- often concoct, no one seems to have found the magic wand to wave away the ugly wound of racism still festering on our battered shores. Yet, we continue to pick at the oozing, crusty scab it leaves behind.  Even religious leaders seem to avoid the issue, or deny its existence, in order to appease their congregants or placate the collection plate. Ah, yes, the virtuous collection plate. Surely, that should solve our problems- but, it doesn’t. 

Perhaps, the solution lies within our children.  Our children?  Oh, yes.  You see, in the formative years of their lives here on earth, they seem to instinctively find ways to get along, in spite of their differences- that is, until adults come along to contaminate their thinking.  If we’re honest, we all can probably point to the time we were first “taught” that race seems to matter in everything we do or pursue in America.

I remember well my childhood years of adjusting to the conflicting lessons in cultural differences while growing up in segregated Kentucky, attending an all-black Baptist church, during the school year; then, living on my grandparent’s farm in Ohio, during the summer months, attending a multiracial, spirit-filled Pentecostal church. There, I learned at an early age what it meant for blacks and whites to work together with common interests, since many of the mostly Dutch and German ancestral congregants, predominantly farmers, took rotating turns on each other’s land to help with chores during planting and harvest times. In Kentucky, farmers simply came to town to seek out paid-labor work crews. And, we didn’t take time out to pray in the fields, like we did in Ohio. 

Back home, around the age of 6, I recall first “learning” of what the Confederate flag meant- for black folk- when a white playmate, a next-door neighbor, gave me one of his father’s Confederate flag decals. We both displayed them on our bicycles; but, we didn’t even make it to the first street corner, before quickly “learning” from older kids what the symbolism meant for adults with different skin tones, long before I saw the silly Ku Klux Klan getups. The “lesson” stayed with me until about a year later.  That’s when our white neighbors felt the need to move to an all-white community and my bike-riding friend and I we were forbidden to visit each other, again.

And, I really didn’t fully understand why, until after I moved North and later returned, during those wacky school desegregation years, when all the once-friendly adults seem to be acting uncharacteristically crazy. But, while playing high school football and running track, with Old Jim Crow on the ropes, gasping for air, it wasn’t long before I understood why.

Much of my education on race and religion came from outside the classroom, as well as beyond the stained glass window landscaping of the various churches I attended.  The desegregation years left many impressions and life-time scars, some of which I only began dealing with, just last year, around the time of my high school class’ 50th reunion.  But, it was only the first one I had attended. Unlike other reunions I’ve attended, attending church together was not on the agenda.

Over the years, I have attended black churches, white churches, mixed-race services, foreign churches or cathedrals, military chapels on Marine Corp bases and Navy chapels at sea, as well as in port, on and off naval bases. I’ve knelt in prayer with Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus and Christians, alike. Interestingly, I’ve always felt welcomed, no matter where I attended church. There always seemed to be sufficient spiritual food for edification and enlightenment. Besides, who am I to reject or castigate what others believe?

But, frankly speaking, for me, nothing can compare to the spirit-filled, soul-stirring, gospel music-brimming services of a hand-clapping, foot-patting black church.  I simply prefer the services of the African-American worship experience, of less-than-Mega-church proportioned congregations. But, does that make me a racist or segregationist anymore than it does for a white person who is culturally comfortable within more Eurocentric environs?  I happen to know a few black families who are more comfortable within white, Eurocentric-oriented services, as well as a few whites who routinely attend and are more comfortable with African-American-oriented services.

During the Colonial slavery period, various church and public records revealed many feeble attempts to combine black and white worship services. Documentation shows some black preachers in the South serving white congregations. However, during the late 1700s, the still-hovering and divisive issues of emancipation and race further complicated the rocky attempts at interracial worship. Blacks were either forced out of white churches or voluntarily left to form their own, as with the First African Baptist Churches in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky, according to church archives.  Arguably, the first was founded in Lexington, Kentucky by slaves (Peter Durrett and wife), around 1790.

Later, free African-Americans in Boston’s Beacon Hill founded the First African Baptist Church, under Rev. Thomas Paul, around 1805, followed by the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816, which grew out of the efforts of the Rev. Richard Allen. My family and I have visited most of these and other traditionally black churches, planted during colonial times, in Virginia and Kentucky, which remain standing today as a monument to determination and faith.

When our kids were growing up, I often told them that the issue of race and racism in America would not even begin to disappear until black and white Americans began to worship together, again.  While I do see evidence of its reoccurrence, I’m convinced for many reasons that it’s likely not to happen on any grand scale.  

When any religion or church becomes a promoter of hate, racial supremacy, or suggests that something other than God is the focus of worship, it then ceases to be the place “That calls me from a world of care…”  When it becomes politicized or corporatized to the bone, as we often see today, it fails to be that place or time where my soul often finds relief. That’s when, in my opinion, it’s no longer that “Sweet Hour of Prayer…,” no matter what color the congregations.

Meanwhile, please pay attention to what you’re really teaching your kids.

 “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

 

INVITATION TO AN EXECUTION: “On the Way to Golgotha”

Talking Drum: At Peace...“Be the peace you wish for the world.” 

 (Mahatma Gandhi)

 

During the final earthly hours of Christ, while being savagely forced by Roman soldiers to carry his own cross to Golgotha (a.k.a.,  Calvary), a man was plucked from a crowd of jeering bystanders to help a weary and tormented Jesus.  While this brief encounter is well documented throughout history, from the Bible to modern day film and theatre, little is known about this mysterious individual chosen to ease this particular burden of Christ. 

Why this man?  Did he stand out in some way?  Was he Jewish, Greek or Roman?  Dark skinned, light-skinned or olive complexion?  Or, does it even matter?  

It mattered to an African-American poet, of the Harlem Renaissance Era, named Countee Cullen (1903-1946, from Louisville, Kentucky, by most accounts). In his poem, “Simon of Cyrene Speaks,” he explored the possibility that the man pulled from the swarming flock of tormenters was black.  It also matters to me. 

The episodic experiences of Jesus Christ’s last days on earth are sacred- yet, profane and profound.  The entire period is sacred, between “Passion Sunday” (a.k.a., “Palm Sunday) and “Easter Sunday,” in my opinion.  It is chock-full of profane examples of man’s inhumanity to man, following this meek and mostly mild-mannered, son-of-a-carpenter’s celebratory entrance to Jerusalem- perched on a lowly donkey. But, the profound events immediately prior, and directly following, the Crucifixion still boggle the mind of many decent thinking humans, today.  Cullen merely speculated about a brief moment, in the midst of the heckling throngs. 

Others speculated, as well.  This theory about Christ’s fleeting encounter with a black man is still interesting wonderment.  But, the footnotes of history fail to satisfy its mystery.  Research data is contradictory, and often controversial.  And, this particular commentary promises not to quell any arguments.  Yet, it’s a question for the ages, still begging for an answer. 

Rather than further flaming the embers of controversy, this brief excursion simply represents another point of view, among the legions of changing viewpoints, zigzagging down the slopes of time, religious or secular-  sacred or profane. Regardless of who helped bear the cross of Christ, it’s likely that his own salvation was quickened by this 11th-hour intervention in Jesus’ suffering.

Simply put, evidentiary findings for the existence of persons of African descent within the Bible do not prove that “Simon of Cyrene,” who helped Jesus bear His cross to Golgotha, was not black or of the dark-skinned peoples of Africa.  Instead, my research reveals that this particular “Simon” made a Passover pilgrimage, 500 miles or more, to Jerusalem from Cyrene, ending during Jesus’ humiliating climb to Golgotha.

This is supported by all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which mention that this particular “Simon” was the one made to carry our Savior’s cross.  At that time, Cyrene was a city in the Greek province of Cyrenaica, in North Africa- today’s northern Libya- where many blacks lived. It was during the time that Greeks considered all of Africa as “Greater Ethiopia.”    This much is certain.  It’s also consistent with my observations while stationed in the Mediterranean.

In this country, other views include the torturous Crucifixion-to-Resurrection movie, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), where “Simon” is depicted as Jewish, played by Jarreth Merz.  In “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), an epic about Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through the Resurrection, “Simon” is played by the great African-American actor, Sidney Poitier. These histrionic expressions represent additional points of view, by mere mortals, within the kaleidoscope of time. 

Yet, both views were considered “facts,” as supported by historical evidence or other logical conclusions, as filtered through the lens of various honorable observers. 

Similarly, Cullen’s rhythmic creative interpretation, in the shadows of the Synoptic Gospels, further highlights this factually significant moment, a brief mental link between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Simon of Cyrene,” on the way to Golgotha, where Jesus died. 

If you close your eyes, you might even smell the approaching rains and see the dark storm clouds brewing.  Early in the morning, before a frenzied Passover Festival crowd, Pontius Pilate is setting free the rebellious bandit, Barabbas.  Then, he hands Jesus over to a cruel and vicious group of seasoned Roman soldiers for more extreme punishment, including vicious floggings and, eventually, his unusually painful death. 

Most Christians know what happened next.  It’s not pretty.  In fact, it’s ugly: 

They dragged Jesus, nearly nude, out into the streets.  Soldiers mocked him and beat him mercilessly.  They put a purple robe of “royalty” on him. They ceremoniously placed a wreath of thorny branches on his head.  Punctuating his prickly crown, they saluted him.  Then, they spat on him.  These warriors repeatedly called him “The King of the Jews.” Yet, they spit on him and whipped him, again.  He suffered even more cruelty and ridicule as he slowly made his way to the place called “Golgotha,” translated, meaning “The Place of the Skull.” 

Close your eyes again and you might get a whiff of the foul-smelling wine they tried to make him drink.  The stench forces you to turn away.

Then, they nailed his bare hands and naked feet to the cross, slamming through skin, bone and wood with spikes.  Razor-sharp spears-of-war poked and sliced his battered flesh. Soldiers threw dice for the skimpy clothes he wore.  Next, to see if he was worthy of their “believing” in his powers, they ordered this humbled religious teacher to climb down from the cross- to save himself!

But, his mission was not over… 

At noon, the whole country was engulfed with a frightful darkness.  Three hours later, just before he died, with his mother looking on, Christ cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”  Translated, it means, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me? It was only then that a nearby army officer blurted out, “…This man was really the Son of God!” 

If hearing this, can you imagine how “Simon of Cyrene” must have felt?  Cullen did.  He used his poem as a canvass to sketch “Simon’s” reflections of his earlier encounter with the “Son of God,” on his way to Golgotha

Listen, as “Simon” finally spoke:         (From “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” by Countee Cullen)

He never spoke a word to me,

And yet He called my name;

He never gave a sign to me,

And yet I knew and came.

 

At first I said, “I will not bear

His cross upon my back;

He only seeks to place it there

Because my skin is black.”

 

But He was dying for a dream,

And He was very meek,

And in His eyes there shone a gleam

Men journey far to seek.

 

It was Himself my pity bought;

I did for Christ alone

What all of Rome could not have wrought

With bruise of lash or stone.

“Simon of Cyrene” disappears from the scriptures, as mysteriously as he entered.  But, Jesus was a marked man, from the time he entered Jerusalem on “Passion Sunday,” amid the deceiving shouts of “Hosanna.” He was marked for death by mere Roman mortals. 

Yet, he was marked by God for eternal life, after he died, for the sins of all mankind.  In a sense, Simon was marked, too.  At least, that’s my take on it…  Apparently, Countee Cullen felt the same. 

Think about this: Was Simon of Cyrene “invited” or “forced” to help Christ, on the way to Golgotha?  Did Cullen’s poem help clarify this mysterious juxtaposition of Christ & Simon?  How important is the story of the Crucifixion?  Simon’s story?  Simply think about it within the context of the approaching Easter celebrations.

Regardless of whether or not your thoughts stem from religious or literary perspectives, please feel free to share them within the ‘comments’ section below.  Thank you. 

HAPPY EASTER!  

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s. 

(From previous posting by Backstreet Djeli on  April 1st, 2010  @ http://www.rizingcubenterprises.com)

 

 

 

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